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Urbanization is the expansion of a city, namely the proportion of total population or area in urban localities or areas (cities and towns), or the increase of this proportion over time. It can thus represent a level of urban relative to total population or area, or the rate at which the urban proportion is increasing. Both can be expressed in percentage terms, the rate of change as a percentage per year, decade or period between censuses.

For instance, the United States or United Kingdom have a far higher urbanization level than China, India or Nigeria, but a far slower annual urbanization rate, since far fewer of the population are rural dwellers in the process of moving to town.

The city of is a great example of urbanization.
The city of Los Angeles is a great example of urbanization.

The rate of urbanization over time is distinct from the rate of urban growth, which is the rate at which the urban population or area increases in a given period relative to its own size at the start of that period. The urbanization rate represents the increase in the proportion urban over the period.

In terms of a geographical place, urbanization means increased spatial scale and/or density of settlement and/or business and other activities in the area over time. The process could occur either as natural expansion of the existing population (usually not a major factor since urban reproduction tends to be lower than rural), the transformation of peripheral population from rural to urban, incoming migration, or a combination of these.

In either case, urbanization has profound effects on the ecology of a region and on its economy. Urban sociology also observes that people's psychology and lifestyles change in an urban environment.

The increase in spatial scale is often called "urban sprawl". It is frequently used as a derogatory term by opponents of large-scale urban peripheral expansion especially for low-density urban development on or beyond the city fringe. Sprawl is considered unsightly and undesirable by those critics, who point also to diseconomies in travel time and service provision and the danger of social polarisation through suburbanites' remoteness from inner-city problems.


Economic effects

The most striking immediate change accompanying urbanisation is the rapid change in the prevailing character of local livelihoods as agriculture or more traditional local services and small-scale industry give way to modern industry and urban and related commerce, with the city drawing on the resources of an ever-widening area for its own sustenance and goods to be traded or processed into manufactures.

Research in urban ecology finds that larger cities provide more specialized goods and services to the local market and surrounding areas, function as a transportation and wholesale hub for smaller places, and accumulate more capital, financial service provision, and an educated labor force, as well as often concentrating administrative functions for the area in which they lie. This relation among places of different sizes is called the urban hierarchy .

As cities develop, effects can include a dramatic increase in rents, often pricing the local working class out of the market, including such functionaries as employees of the local municipalities. Supermarkets and schools sometimes relocate or close down owing to the same financial pressure. Dramatic increases in land values also encourage further development, and may bring an increased tax revenue for local government.

In order to mitigate the problems of city growth, certain policies such as zoning or growth control or creation of an urban growth boundary are put in place, although the eventual effect of those policies sometimes turn out to be inflated land and housing prices due to a restricted supply.

In Canada, the cost of construction of new highways (and often other forms of infrastructure such as water mains and sewage treatment plants), which facilitates urban sprawl, is covered by the provincial governments. The benefits of new land being opened up for development are paid for by all taxpayers in the province rather than the owners of the new homes. This hidden subsidy makes the cost of urban sprawl seem lower than it actually is.

Ecological and environmental effects

A major issue facing large cities is the disposal of the ever-growing volume of waste which accompanies increased affluence and reliance on purchased goods. Apart from the unsightliness of disposal sites, harmful synthetic materials in packaging, household appliances or machinery may threaten neighboring rural areas or water sources. Though municipal authorities are trying to address the problem, its rapid growth threatens to outstrip the resources of developing countries.

Urbanization can increase the potential for wildland fires as planting and irrigation of landscaping trees and plants occur over the years. The devastating East Bay Hills firestorm in Oakland, California and Berkeley, California in 1991 was one instance where lush vegetation in a suburban neighborhood in the wildland/urban intermix resulted in a serious fire.

In the western United States, urbanization often brings people into contact with wildlife such as deer (often hunting is not permitted in settled areas, and deer become quite tame), and puma, a natural predator of deer and pets such as dogs and cats. As the puma become at home in the urban setting they sometimes turn to people too as a source of food. (See, for example, "Deer Draw Cougars Ever Eastward" by Blaine Harden, New York Times, Nov. 12, 2002 [1]). This type of event is as yet rare, but as the estimated 30,000 puma in the western United States gradually expand their range to the eastern United States, it is a source of concern.

Increases in the size of urban areas can have significant impacts on local airsheds and watersheds.

With urban areas sprawling outward from the city core, where the majority of economic activity often occurs, people need to travel greater distances to offices and markets in the core: conversely, people in inner-city areas need to travel further to escape the city. In North America the travel mode most often used is the car, which can pollute the air with emissions and can pollute waterways with auto fluids, grime, rubber and metal, and road salts.

Often new urban areas are built in areas where the natural water cycle once occurred, such as forests, meadows or wetlands. This can harm the recharging of the groundwater table, and can affect local bodies of water. The natural water cycle is disrupted, and often, new pollutants such as pesticides can create problems for the ecology of an area.

Conversely, while urban air is often more polluted than suburban or rural air, concentrating a population in a relatively small area can reduce the average amount of travel, and thus reduce transport-related pollution. Similarly, city-dwellers occupy less space per household than suburbanites, and use less fresh water, fertilizer, and herbicides (because they have smaller lawns and gardens, if any).

Psychological effects and urban lifestyle

In the field of urban sociology, the effects of urbanization on mentality and life style has been a subject of research and debate. The agreement hardly exists, though the differing views are closely related to one another. Following are some major views.

Georg Simmel (1971), one of the pioneers in German sociology and urban sociology, suggests that the increased concentration and diversity of people and ongoing activities in city put urbanites under stress (a cognitive overload). This is considered the major cause of urban mentality - detachment from others, self-centeredness, and rational calculating mind.

This understanding of urban life and urbanites is closely related to the understanding of modern society by Ferdinand Tonnies (1988) and Max Weber, two of Simmel's close contemporaries. Louis Wirth , a member of Chicago school, followed Simmel and wrote probably the most frequently-cited paper on urbanism "Urbanism as a way of life," in 1938. His writing on the effects of urbanism on mentality and lifestyle remains illustrative, compared to the definition of urbanism, but among those suggested are relaxed moral restrains, increased participation in formal organization pursuing limited goals (as opposed to belonging to a community), increased role of mediated communication. Both are more or less in line with social atomism, the view that modern society disintegrates communities into a soup of individuals.

The major counter-argument is found in Herbert Gans 's work Urban Villagers , an ethnographical study on how urbanites' lives are enclaved by local ethnic community , taking the case of Italian-American community in Boston.

Another well-known view is the subcultural theory of urbanism of Claude Fischer (1975, 1976). He asserts that many different subcultural groups are formed in urban areas, and residents tend to choose a limited number of them to participate, as opposed to freely floating one from another. Some of those groups are quite informal and residents may be strongly engaged, having a similar experience to the close relationship found in community.

The escalating rise in obesity as a public health problem in developing and developed countries has been ascribed by some researchers to the rise of urban sprawl (See link below). It is thought that suburbanites rely on takeaway, high calorie food rather than on cooking at home, and that they have less opportunity for walking, cycling and other exercise than city centre or rural citizens .

Changing form of urbanization

There are different form of urbanization, or concentration of human activities, settlements, and social infrastructures observed. Some suggests the dominant form of urbanization have been changing over time.

Traditional urbanization exhibits a mono-centric concentration of human activities and settlements around the downtown area. When the residential area shifts outward, this is called suburbanization. A number of researchers and writers suggest that suburbanization has gone so far to form new points of concentration outside the downtown. This networked, poly-centric form of concentration is considered by some an emerging pattern of urbanization. It is called variously as exurbia, edge city (Garreau, 1991), network city (Batten, 1995), or postmodern city (Dear, 2000). Los Angeles is the best-known example of this type of urbanization.


Urbanization has in the United States affected the Rocky Mountains in locations such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Telluride, Colorado, Taos, New Mexico, Douglas County, Colorado and Aspen, Colorado. The lake district of northern Minnesota has also been affected as has Vermont, the coast of Florida, and the barrier islands of North Carolina.

In the United Kingdom, two major examples of new urbanization can be seen in Swindon, Wiltshire and Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. These two towns show some of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

External links


Batten, D. F. (1995). Network cities: creative urban agglomerations for the 21st century. Urban Studies, 32, 361-378.

Dear, Michael J. (2000). Postmodern urban condition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fischer, C. S. (1975). Toward a subcultural theory of urbanism. American Journal of Sociology 80, 1319-1341.

Fischer, Claude (1976). The urban experience. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gans, Harbert J. (1962). The Urban Villagers: Group and class in the life of Italian-Americans. New York: MacMillan.

Garreau, J. (1991). Edge city: Life on the new frontier. New York: Anchor Books.

Simmel, Georg. (1903 trans. 1971). Metropolis and mental life. in On Individuality and social forms ed. by Donald Levine. trans. by Edward Shills. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Tonnies, Ferdinand (1887 trans. 1988). Community & society, with an introduction by John Samples. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Wirth, L. (1938). Urbanism as a way of life. American Journal of Sociology, 44, 3-24.

See also

Last updated: 05-07-2005 17:33:22
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04